At the Border

You notice a funny thing when you talk to drivers in Mexico and in the United States about the prospect of driving across the border.

They’re scared of the same things.
Truckers on both sides are nervous about the notion of driving in a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t know the rules. They also worry that they would be victims of unreasonable laws and harsh punishments.

“Mexico is a very peaceful country,” says Juliojorge Hernandez Zacatecas, a Mexican driver. “If you commit a crime, they incarcerate you. If I were to run someone over in the United States, they would kill me with a lethal injection. The Federales are much more laid back here.

Just give them 20 pesos (about $2), and they’re gone.”
Mike Brady of Duncan, Okla., has the same fear about driving in Mexico. “If I go down there and make a wrong move, a minor traffic infraction could put you in jail. It would be real easy for an American driver to get into trouble.”

Drivers north and south of the border also feel that U.S. DOT inspectors will give preferential treatment to drivers of the other country.

“DOT’s willing to overlook a lot of stuff in Mexican trucks that they’ll nail us to the wall for,” says Stan Swindell of Silver Springs, Texas.

Martin Garcia, a Mexican driver eating lunch at a truckstop north of Mexico City, says the preferential treatment goes the other way. “There’s a little racism in the United States. If you’re a Mexican driver and the U.S. inspectors find something very tiny that’s wrong with your truck, they will make a very big deal out of it,” he says.

“One time I was driving into Nogales, Ariz., and I had a signal that worked, but there was a tiny piece of glass broken from it. They sent me back, and I had to go buy a new one. I wasted a whole day. But it’s your country, so I have to do what you say. It’s my work, and it’s very important to me.”

Driver Francisco Rosas Uribe of Mexico City agrees. “Every little thing and they’re going to fine Mexican drivers $100,” he says.

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But there’s one thing that American drivers are scared of that Mexican drivers are not: losing their wages.

Because Mexican drivers would happily work for less than what U.S. drivers currently make, truckers north of the border might see a decline in pay. That’s why most American drivers adamantly oppose opening the border and most Mexican drivers support it.

“If they open the border, Mexican drivers will be able to deliver Mexican freight to where I deliver to, so I’ll be out of a job, and I don’t dig that,” says Danny Fields, a trucker from Bucklin, Mo., at a truckstop just north of the border in Laredo, Texas. Fields has come to the border to pick up tractor parts that he’s hauling to a John Deere plant in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He drives for Warren Transport of Waterloo, Iowa.

Currently, Mexican drivers make 10 cents per mile. The rate is uniform, whether you’ve been driving for 50 days or 50 years. There are some who get a percentage of the load, around 13 percent. To make $400 a week is doing extremely well in Mexico. More common is $100 or $200 a week.

The standard of living is lower in Mexico, so people can live on less money. Still, Mexican truckers say they do not save anything, and that all their earnings go to their families.

“It’s not easy – we live day to day,” says Garcia of his family of a wife and three daughters. “I have to work four or five months to make what an American does in one month. With NAFTA, hopefully there will be more equilibrium.” Garcia drives 70 hours per week and makes about $400.

“They make four times what we make, so they want to keep the border closed,” Mexican driver Facundo Monje says of American drivers.

U.S. drivers say they don’t want inferior Mexican trucks crossing the border. “I’ve seen some of the stuff coming across the border, and I wouldn’t ride around the block in them,” Swindell says. “I saw one today that looked like it was homemade.”

How bad are Mexican trucks? They’re highly variable. For example, about half of the trucks in the fleet of TransMex – Swift’s Mexican subsidiary – are 2001 Freightliners. These trucks zip past old cabovers that chug up hills at about 20 mph.

Some Mexicans insist their trucks are no worse than U.S. trucks. Driver Facundo Monje points to a row of U.S.-made trucks and says, “These trucks are imported. Do they seem bad to you? The United States is the 100 percent beneficiary of all the cargo we transport. What is the problem with our trucks and drivers?” Monje has just driven 30 hours from Acapulco to the border empty, at a rate of 8 cents per mile.

But Fields captures the feeling of most American drivers: “We’ve got enough trouble up here with American trucks,” he says. “I’m for free trade, but I don’t approve at all of having their rickety, old trucks up here running over our people.”

Hard data is not available on comparative truck safety. “I’m not aware of any studies showing that Mexican trucks have a more hazardous safety record than their U.S. counterparts,” says Thomas Fullerton, a border scholar at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Most Mexican trucks have been purchased in the United States, once fleet operators have decided to replace them. So they typically require more maintenance. On average they probably are more dangerous.”

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Fullerton points out that Mexican trucks have been crossing the border since the mid-1980s to pick up U.S. exports to haul into Mexico. “Mexican trucks go as far north as Colorado, as far west as California,” he says. “Since they’re not bringing Mexican products into the United States, they don’t fall under U.S. regulations.” The shippers are Mexican companies hauling U.S. exports such as food into Mexico, he explains.

Fullerton, an economics professor, does not see older trucks as an insurmountable issue. “If the federal government does its job in terms of properly staffing the inspection points, that will preclude most trucks that are not up to U.S. standards from operating in the United States.”

Many U.S. truckers say they wouldn’t cross the border if it was opened. One big concern they have is the quality of the roads.

How bad are Mexican roads? This is a trick question. The toll roads are fine, but no one uses them. That’s because it costs a trucker $170 in tolls to go from the Laredo, Texas, border to Mexico City.

The free road from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, at one point, crosses under the toll road. You see a couple trucks per minute on the toll road, and underneath it, there’s a caravan of trucks on the free road.

“If the customer requires a toll road, the customer pays a dollar a mile,” says Dave Shatto, Celadon’s vice president of operations. Valuable loads such as electronics go over toll roads, he says.

Mexican toll roads are much faster than free roads because there are fewer stops and they have two lanes in each direction instead of one.

The free roads pass through many small towns with lots of stops and speedbumps. Also, because the quality of trucks is so variable, the fast ones have to pass the slow ones if they want to deliver their freight on time. This leads to dangerous games of cat and mouse, at least during the day when truck traffic is thin enough to allow passing.

“The Mexican road system is not as extensive as the United States’, but by Latin American standards the road system is much more extensive and in better condition than other places,” says Fullerton.

Another strike against NAFTA for many truckers, is the bad taste it has left in the wake of plant closings, as corporations go south of the border for cheaper labor.
Michael Cole of Flint, Mich., says, “I’m from the Michigan area, and I’ve seen a lot of jobs go to Mexico.”
Rob Coleman of Valparaiso, Fla., adds, “They take parts down; they build our cars and send them back. And they still put American-made on them, and that’s wrong.”

Another concern on the U.S. side is immigration. If the border is open to trucks, how will the United States prevent Mexican truckers from smuggling Mexicans into the states?

In interviews with about 15 Mexican truckers, one said he would move to the United States temporarily if he could. Most others said they would never consider living in the United States. The lifestyle is too different, too fast-paced. And, besides, they don’t want to leave their families. “I’ve got nothing there,” says Garcia. “I have no desire to live there.”

Driver Yair Monroyi echoes those sentiments. Asked if he would want to live in the United States, he says, “No. Life here is calmer. I’d like to get to know the United States, but not live there.” He is on his way from Monterrey to Mexico City, a drive that takes him 20 to 22 hours. For his normal 10-hour run, he gets 100 pesos (about $10).

Some Mexican drivers point out that they will not be able to compete with U.S. companies. “There are three times more trucks in the United States,” says driver Martin Garcia. “How can I compete if I have one truck, and he has 500? It’s cheaper for the big companies to use companies with many trucks than one truck. We are very disadvantaged.”

Major trucking companies that have operations in Mexico are excited about the prospect of an open border. “DOT concern over safety is overstated and can be properly satisfied,” Celadon’s Shatto says. “An open border would give additional capacity for our U.S. customers, and if we have more Mexican drivers, it frees up more of our U.S. drivers to serve our U.S. base.”

But even trucking executives say a seamless border is still a long way off. Rafael Varela, vice president of operations for TransMex, says, “The interest rates you have to pay when financing a truck here in Mexico are 30 percent. In the states, 10 percent to 15 percent is high. So it’s cheaper to buy American trucks. The drivers on each side of the border are not trained for the other’s countries. The truck spec’s are different. Maintenance would be different. U.S. trucks will get beaten up on Mexican roads.”

Shatto agrees. “I’m not convinced the infrastructure is in place, yet,” he says. “For five years it’s been on the back burner. No one has contemplated how they will manage the process. So it would take some time after they open the border to get things up and running.”

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